Rayna Gellert’s background is in mountain and string band music. She is an acclaimed old-time fiddler – for which role she’s hitherto been best known, latterly with the band Uncle Earl which she co-founded (and with whom she’s also been known to sing a bit too on rare occasions). Her father Dan has long been celebrated within the old-time music community for his banjo playing. He played on a couple of tracks of Rayna’s magnificent debut solo album Old Light: Songs From My Childhood And Other Gone Worlds, which came out in 2013 and concentrated on her emerging, and serious, talent as a songwriter. It’s taken Rayna Gellert some time to follow up on that album, though, but this new seven-tracker, Workin’s Too Hard, has clearly been worth the wait.
While accepting the importance of her role in conserving and protecting the old-time tradition, Rayna didn’t want to fall into the same trap as her father in becoming obsessed with traditional music to the exclusion of finding her own voice. “Eventually I realised that my job is to play music I love, which is bigger than protecting any one concept of tradition. I realised I was an artist, and I wanted to claim that.” The light-bulb moment came with the creation of the Old Light album, where Rayna showed that deep immersion in our musical past can bring a collision between cultural and personal memory, giving rise to a new tradition of her own devising. As evidenced in the disc’s title song, where her imagination is triggered by the memory of lyric snippets from a 1937 Kentucky field recording. One of the disc’s standout tracks for me is the wistful waltzer River Town, where the collision of heartbreaking personal memories is at its most haunting. It’s one of two songs which turn out to be jointly penned by Rayna Gellert and her co-producer Kieran Kane – the other being Grey Bird, which draws additionally on traditional lyrics for its expression of timeless yearning. Strike The Bells poignantly explores old age, and both complements and contrasts with Perry, which simply but powerfully distills the essence of a universal truth.
Perry is the disc’s other major triumph in a whole disc of high points, and, coincidentally, it’s one of only two songs to include the sound of the fiddle in its instrumental backing. Here, it’s joined by just a lone piano in a distinctive departure from the muted, largely guitar-and-soft-keys-based scoring of the rest of the record. Its primitive, yet slightly eerie retro signature sound owes much to the low-key, intensely live real-time feel of the recording (all credit due to engineer Charles Yingling) and the empathic playing of long-time musical friends Kai Welch, Jamie Dick and Kieran Kane. As well as three of Rayna’s own compositions and the two aforementioned co-writes, the album also contains two traditional songs, Oh Lovin’ Babe and I’m Bound For The Promised Land; the former is given a mysterious, almost reverential aura with gentle supporting vocal harmonies, whereas the latter, rather intriguingly, comes across like darkly grungy and surprisingly dirty rockabilly and sports a raw, grinding fiddle solo.
Workin’s Too Hard is a warmly inclusive and rather special record, with a feeling of back porch intimacy that at times recalls (but nowhere apes) Gillian Welch’s landmark Revival sessions. But Rayna’s vision has its own unique perspective and atmosphere. The distinctive and memorable music and songwriting on Workin’s Too Hard sure left me wanting much more, and I do hope Rayna can get it all together again soon. Meanwhile, she’s over here in the UK (with Kai and Jamie) for a rare visit (just eleven dates, in late Jan/early Feb).
Workin’s Too Hard is out on 20 Jan via StorySound Records
Order it here via Amazon
UK Tour Dates
With Kai Welch Jamie Dick
JAN 20 FRI – Whitstable Sessions, Whitstable
JAN 21 SAT – Cowshed, Huddersfield,
JAN 22 SUN – Victoria Hotel, Menai Bridge
JAN 25 WED – Pembrokeshire Old Time Event, Manorbier
JAN 26 THU – The Green Note, London
JAN 28 SAT – The Square & Compass, Worth Matravers
FEB 01 WED – Strule Arts Center, Omagh
FEB 02 THU – Bangor Castle, Bangor
FEB 03 FRI – Island Arts Centre, Lisburn
FEB 04 SAT – Roe Valley Arts Centre, Limavady
FEB 05 SUN – Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast